How to Identify Native Plants

Skills for Oregon’s High Desert and Beyond

Derek Loeb

By Scott Bowler

Hey, what’s that cool flower?

After leading wildflower discovery and identification trips for 40-plus years, I can tell you that people’s most common reaction upon encountering a new flower is: “Oh, cool! What’s that?” They want a name.

In this blog post, I’ll guide you through the key steps to figuring out what that cool flower is, but, first, a word about names.

While a plant’s common name is interesting and can be pretty, it can vary regionally and it’s all too often kind of meaningless. Take “spring beauty” for one example. At least five plants in Oregon are known by this common name! But, all plants have one unique scientific binomial, the Genus and species name. This Latin, or “latinized,” name provides learners with an organizational plan, as it often shows close relationships and includes clues about specific characteristics, such as color, size, shape, form, habitat, or even the botanist who identified it. With many thousands of species out there, answering “What is it?” can be complicated, but, in my experience it’s best to learn the scientific names.

Getting Started

Here’s some good news. No doubt you’ve seen thousands of flowers as you’ve explored outdoors, and you already know some of them. If you have a garden, then you’re already familiar with those plants, too. Every plant you already know will help you as you work to identify new plants in the wild.

If you have flower guide, look through it before you go out. If you don’t have a flower guide, get one and page through it!

Here are three useful desert references:

  • The Nature of Bend by LeeAnn Kriegh works well all around Deschutes and Crook County, is easy to use, fun and quite interesting.
  • Sagebrush Country by Roland J. Taylor is excellent for the sagebrush steppe and, although not exhaustive, it provides good information on the high desert’s most important and unique species.
  • Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest by Mark Turner and Phyllis Gustafson is more broad in scope and breadth and works well throughout our Northwest bio-region. Providing lots of information about various habitats, it’s organized by flower color and by petal arrangement, plus it includes valuable range maps for each species, which really help you determine what is growing in front of you.

And, here’s some more good news. Our brains really like to recognize, order and sort similar items, so a lot of your identification work will come naturally. Your skills will improve as you spend time in the field (soon, we hope!) and simply by being more observant when you notice a pretty flower. Stop, bend over, and really look at it closely for a moment.

To identify an unknown flower in the wild, start by asking yourself these questions:

  1. What is its basic anatomy? How is it put together?
  2. Does it look familiar? Does it remind me of something I already know?
  3. What is its habitat? Where and how is it growing?


Sarah Graham, Sage Sustainers Member

Sarah Graham, Sage Sustainers Member

“I contribute to ONDA monthly because it adds up to a larger annual gift than what I’d be able to comfortably afford if I were to do a simple one-time donation annually. I’m able to give more to ONDA this way and have greater impact which is important to me, and my dog Polly.”


Great Horned Owls and Western Screech Owls

Great Horned Owls and Western Screech Owls




The Oregon Swallowtail butterfly is the official state insect of Oregon and a true native of the Pacific Northwest. The Swallowtail can be seen in the lower sagebrush canyons of the Columbia River and its tributaries, including the Snake River drainage area.  Source: State Symbols USA

Latin name: Papilio oregonius

A monocot: Bigpod mariposa lily (Calochortus eurycarpus)

Chris Christie

A dicot: Heartleaf Arnica (Arnica cordifolia)

Chris Christie

Brush Up On Flower Anatomy

Like all biological organisms, flowers are organized by their relative relationship to each other, from huge initial groupings down to what’s most important for us: Family, Genus, and individual species, and, in some cases, localized varieties and sub-species.

One important high level difference is between the type of seedlings and leaf veins that plants have. Monocots have one seed leaf and plants with parallel veins (like pines, grasses, lilies and orchids) and dicots have two seed leaves and plants with branching and net veined leaves (like maples, beans, roses, dandelions, and most other plants).

Understanding a little flower anatomy is fundamental. For one good place to learn the basics, let’s look at the Rosaceae/Rose family, which tend to have:

  • five showy (colorful) flower petals
  • five green sepals (the outer bud covering) which turn down underneath the petals as the flower opens up, and which are often united at the base into a cup-like form
  • lots of stamens (the male, pollen producing parts of the flower) around the center
  • a single central pistil (female part) to which the pollen adheres and which then produces the seeds
  • ovaries that form the (often) edible fruit. Think raspberry, apple or, in this case, rosehip.

Flowers can be:

  • regular – radially symmetrical on several axes. Think lily, buttercup, primrose, rose or mustard.
  • irregular – only one vertical axis of symmetry. Think orchid, violet, pea, monkeyflower or penstemon.
  • composite – made up of many smaller and different types of flowers arranged together in a disc. Think daisy, thistle, sunflower, balsamroot or dandelion.

Beyond the flower’s anatomy, look for the general growth habit and form (herb or forb, annual or perennial, woody shrub or tree), size and shape of the leaves (smooth, wavy, toothed, or serrated edges; smooth, shiny, dull, sticky, hairy or bristly surfaces), and the plant’s growth arrangement itself (tall or short, simple or more complex, growing from one central spot or multi-branched).

Iris / Iridaceae Family

Western blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum)

Chris Christie

Buckwheat / Polygonaceae Family

Douglas' buckwheat (Eriogonum douglasii)

Buttercup / Ranunculaceae Family

Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

Chris Christie

Figwort / Scrophulariaceae Family

Paintbrush (Castilleja sp.)

Sage Brown   Website

Sunflower / Asteraceae Family

Dwarf Fleabane (Erigeron elegantulus)

Chris Christie

Get Familiar with the Families

Flowering plants fall into to broad categories, based upon their seeds and how they sprout: monocots and dicots. After that comes the Family level, which has a unique combination of sexy parts, will make it way easier to identify the Genus and species you have found. The Family provides the most vital identification clues, so it’s good to focus your efforts on learning about the major ones, of which we have many representatives. You’ll quickly find that if you can guess which Family your flower is in, it’s usually pretty easy to go on and figure out at least the Genus and often go on to learn the species.

Within the Monocotyledons, look for these three main flower Families (and please note that I will not be tackling the grasses here because that’s truly a life’s work!):

Family name -Common Family name – Scientific brief description examples
Lily Liliaceae showy regular flowers, petals and colored sepals very similar to each other, and arranged in groups of 3s sand lily, wild onion, cat’s ear/Mariposa/sego lily, yellow bell, camas, death camas, false Solomon’s seal
Iris Iridaceae showy regular flowers, petals and sepals in 3s but distinctly different, with thicker, more robust leaves than lilies grass widow, wild iris
Orchid Orchidaceae showy irregular flowers, meaning top and bottom of the flower have a distinctly different appearance lady slipper, rattlesnake plantain, coral root

While there are a great many Dicotyledon flower families, there are a baker’s dozen big, common, well-represented families that contain most of the blooms that you’re likely to encounter in the high desert.

Family name – Common Family name – Scientific brief description examples
Buckwheat Polygonaceae most have swollen nodes at leaf joints, lower growing, small showy flowers, often very tough, hardy plants knotweed, sulfur buckwheat, sorrel, dock
Purslane Montiaceae usually fleshy leaves, low growing, some very showy blooms purslane, pussypaws, montia, Lewisia, claytonia/miner’s lettuce
Mustard Brassicaceae four petals with 6 stamens, inferior and large, showy ovaries, most are edible; cress and rock-cress, wallflower, mustard, draba, pepper-grass, shepherd’s purse
Saxifrage Saxifragaceae large and diverse family, name means broken rock (referring to a split ovary), mostly basal leaves; small but showy flowers with four-five petals, showy stamens prairie stars, alum root, Oregon saxifrage, grassland saxifrage
Buttercup Ranunculaceae sepals and petals colored, many stamens, superior multiple ovaries sagebrush buttercup, Blue Mountain buttercup, western, and other buttercups, larkspur, delphinium, columbine, clematis, pasqueflower
Rose Roseaceae very large, diverse family, usually five green sepals with five colorful, showy petals, forbs, shrubs, trees and vines, many have edible fruits wild rose, horkelia, ocean spray, geum, strawberry, partridgefoot, avens, potentilla, bitter-brush, raspberry, hackberrry
Pea Fabaceae irregular flowers, with a “bonnet” at top and a “keel” at the bottom, often bi-colored, showy, usually compound leaves vetch, loco weed, lupine, woolly-pod milk vetch, giant-head clover, prairie-clover
Violet Violaceae irregular flowers, 2 petals up and 3 down with landing lines for pollinators, showy sagebrush violet, yellow prairie violet, and out towards Idaho the gorgeous Beckwith’s violet
Evening Primrose Onagraceae four petals, very showy, big seedpods clarkia, fireweed, willow-herb, evening primrose
Carrot Apiceae flowers tiny in huge clusters arranged like umbrellas, parsley-like foliage, tap roots, NOTE—many edibles, but a few deadly poisonous lomatum/desert parsley—many varieties, yellow, white and pink, biscuitroot, turkey peas
Phlox Polmoniaceae five showy petals fused into a long tube, many with tiny, sharp leaves, very tough plants of rocky areas phlox, scarlet gilia, collomia
Borage Boraginaceae showy flowers on coiled stalks, often two-toned popcorn flower, cryptantha, forget-me-not, blue bell, puccoon, fiddle-neck, stickseed
Figwort Scrophulariaceae giant and diverse family of irregular flowers, many oddities and weirdos pink elephant head, figwort, many penstemons, monkeyflower, lousewort, Indian paintbrush, owl-clover, collinsia
Sunflower Asteraceae “composite” flowers with two distinct types of flowers present together on a head: ray flowers on the outside (the white daisy “petals”) and the disc flowers on the inside (the yellow center of a daisy) aster, daisy, Townsendia, arnica, hawksbeard, wild lettuce, agoseris, microseris, rosy everlasting, pussy toes, dirty socks, gold stars, Oregon sunshine, gaillardia, wyethia, balsam root, yarrow, thistles, rabbit brush, sagebrush

The largest family by far is the gigantic Asteraceae/Sunflower family, which is actually so big and diverse it also includes “tribes!” My personal favorite among those many flowers is the lovely little, no-common-name, Blepharipappus.

Learn to look closely and carefully so that you can spot the differences in key areas, follow your intuition, take lots of photos and write some notes, and you’ll be on your way.

Springtime in the Sutton Mountain Wilderness Study Area

Where a closer look reveals a variety of native plants

Keep Track of the Habitat

While the unfamiliar might say Oregon’s high desert is “all the same,” well, they are just flat-out wrong. Oregon’s high desert is huge — encompassing about 45% of the state’s land area—and what grows where and when is incredibly varied. Within Oregon’s sagebrush steppe, grasslands, juniper woodlands, rock outcrops, cliffs, salt pans and sand dunes is held a vast diversity of habitat for flora. These habitats are influenced by: rock and soil types, soil chemistry, elevation, slope, sun exposure, aspect, precipitation, temperature, seasonality, competition, invasive species, disturbance, and grazing pressure.

All of these factors, and more, can help you determine what you’re seeing, so it’s vital to pay attention to where and when you’ve encountered a flower. What are the site conditions?  Is it early spring, mid-summer or fall? Is the soil damp or dry, sandy or rocky, sparse or deep, salty or not salty? Are you in a shady canyon, out on the hot and sunny flats, or on a steep slope? Are the flowers growing among  sagebrush, bitterbrush, greasewood, rabbitbrush, junipers or bunch grasses? Are there a great many of the same kind, or did you find just a few?

The habitat maps in Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest, the community association lists in Sagebrush Country, and the species checklists in The Nature of Bend all will really help narrow it down, too.

Keep at it. It gets easier with practice!

P.S. If you get really stuck, and you just have to know, please take several photos (of the whole plant, close ups of the flowers and the leaves) and then note the habitat, date, elevation, and location and send me an email with all of that and your question. Have fun and good luck!